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The Invisible Epidemic

Updated: May 1, 2021

Basketball is Psychology XL


1 in 5 people are currently struggling with mental illness.

1 in 3 athletes are currently struggling with mental illness.

Eating disorders are twice as common in athletes. Mental illnesses are more common than breast cancer, yet major sports leagues have pink ribbon campaigns (which is a worthy cause), but they stay quiet about mental health issues.

Where do athletes go for help? Most of the time, nowhere because of the shame associated with doing so.

Imagine two basketball players: one is recovering from a torn ACL, the other is struggling with depression.

The player with the physical injury has quite the advantage. She can go to the knee doctor for help without having to worry about a stigma. She can talk to her teammates, trainers, or coaches and they will all understand why she needs to go to the doctor and can’t perform at her best.

Mental illnesses are just as detrimental as physical illnesses are to performance. If the player struggling with depression wants to go to the doctor for help, she has to deal with the shame associated with mental illnesses. She probably doesn’t feel like she can talk to anyone about it because they might not understand. She needs help just as much, if not more, than the player with the ACL injury, but it’s much harder because of the stigma around mental illnesses.

The reality is, if you’re not actively trying to end the stigma and being part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It’s much easier to stay quiet and to avoid talking about something that can be uncomfortable, but great leaders never shy away from tough but important subjects.

So how can we be part of the solution?

Being part of the solution means more than just wearing green for mental illness awareness week. There are things we can all do to be part of the solution.

Start a conversation

A few NBA and WNBA players have opened up about their struggles with mental illnesses. Share it with a teammate and start a conversation about mental health. You take the power away from the stigma simply by having a conversation. Talk about it more and the stigma will go away.

Kevin Love's story:

Liz Cambage's story:

Be a Great Teammate

In Google’s quest to build a better team, called Project Aristotle, they studied what differentiates successful teams. They found psychological safety to be the key. Psychological safety is “A shared belief held by team members that that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

It takes no talent to have empathy for each other, to listen without judgment, to be sensitive, and to care. Pay attention to who had a rough practice, who’s dealing with injury, or who’s struggling with personal problems, and simply be there for them. We tend to overestimate the importance of giving good advice or saying something profound and underestimate the importance of presence: just being there for someone. Often times people who are struggling with a mental illness just need someone who will listen.

Be the kind of teammate who is highly attuned to others’ feelings and needs. Be the kind of teammate who makes everyone feel valued, heard, and important. Be the kind of teammate who regularly checks up on your teammates. Ask, “How are you doing?” and wait; listen for a real, genuine answer. And if they aren’t okay, be a shoulder to cry on, be ears that will listen and not judge.

Keep in mind, this is what all the most successful teams had in common: they were psychologically safe teammates. If you want to be a high-performing team, be a psychologically safe team. It’s easy to miss, but Project Aristotle revealed an important truth: success is often built on deep emotional connections, conversations, and experiences.

It’s okay not to be okay, and it’s more than okay to talk about it.


Written by Julie Fournier



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